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I remember when...

29 March 2021

While everyone gripes about the lack of silicon these days, it is perhaps worth remembering how things used to be.

Can't get a new RTX3080 for your gaming rig?

That new car you want to buy is backordered for at least six momths due to a shortage of microcontrollers for its myriad of onboard computing functions?

The CPU upgrade you were planning has had to be put off because the fancy new processor you yearn after can't be had for love nor money?

Well before you feel sorry for yourself, cast your mind back a few years (or more) to when all this personal computer stuff first kicked off and realise just how lucky we are today, even if you are stuck a generation behind.

When I first started in microcomputers during the late 1970s, even having simple serial "glass tty" running at 110 baud was a luxury.

Such things had no graphics to speak of and the ascii text sent to the screen arrived at a tediously slow 11 characters per second. Hell, a lot of the time those characters didn't even have "true descenders" (if you don't know what that means you obviously weren't there).

I recall that when I got my first home-built (because there was virtually nothing on the market) computer going, people were in awe of the fact that it could do super-intelligent stuff such as play a number-guessing game based on a simple binary-chop algorithm. They even got a huge buzz out of being able to enter their name via a keyboard and have it regurgitated during gameplay onto that glass tty screen.

The prospect of something like CoD or MS Flight Simulator were not even on the radarscope. Such things were absolutely unimaginable back then.

Even a few years later when things like the Apple II and TRS80 came onto the market with real "graphics"... the resulting games were, by today's standards, totally laughable.

The TRS80 had (from memory) a 128 x 64 addressible grid of *huge* monochrome pixels although the Apple did a bit better by having more pixels and colour to boot.

Despite these improvements, games were very simple in their visual appearance and required some very clever machine-code programming to coax even the most rudimentary animations from those anemic 8-bit processors ambling along at barely a few megahertz.

And memory... don't get me started on memory. There's a thousand times more memory just in the cache of a modern processor alone than we had in the entire computer itself back then. From my recollection, the cheaper "personal computers" had but a Kbyte or so of available RAM and if you had 8K or (gasp) 16K, you must have been very rich.

Even loading a game was something of a nightmare...

You put the cassette tape in the player, typed in some cryptic command including the word "load" then pressed play and crossed your fingers.

On cheap systems you'd likely get a failure accompanied by the message "Checksum Error". On the more advanced systems that message would read "CRC Error".

Let's also not forget the countless hours of time that many of us spent tediously typing in hundreds of lines of BASIC code (including mountains of DATA, PEEK and POKE instructions) just in order to play a really naff game. Magazines of the era were filled with these games and since most people had never used a keyboard before, their rate of "hunt and peck" meant that the investment was huge, the rewards minimal. Even once you'd typed in that game and saved it to tape there was no guarantee it would load without error when you wanted to play it again at some time in the future.

The strange thing about this is that despite the problems, despite the limitations, despite the lack of RAM, CPU cycles, cool graphics and other things we take for granted today, early adopters who got into computers way back then probably had *more* fun than those who simply whip out their plastic and buy the best and fastest computer stuff today.

Reward, they say, is proportional to effort. The efforts involved in getting a game up on your "olden days" personal computer were far greater than simply logging into a gameserver.

Sure, today's games have fantastic graphics and realism. Today's computers are so damned fast and powerful that those games can run at hundreds of frames per second in 4K resolution.

But... nothing matches the look I used to see on people's faces back in 1978 when a home-brew bunch of wires and chips was able to guess the number they were thinking within a few tries and address them by name when it did so.

You have to love technology!

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